At age 12, guitarist Julen Manzur was reticent about participating in a weekend music program with his older brother.
"Julen didn't have the chops or the skill set to work with the other kids," said Scotty Herold, an instructor at the Experience Jazz program for Twin Cities teenagers. "But he played some beautiful and simple chords. So, I encouraged him in a virtual environment to play those chords for me."
Herold delivered a 45-second recording of Manzur's guitar work to a paid intern who built it into a hip-hop loop, then students added bass and keyboard parts, and they created "Muertos," a standout track on an outstanding new album, "The Sounds of Distance."
"We were able to take this young man who came into the program thinking he had nothing to contribute," Herold said, "and by the time we were done, he created three of the most exciting tracks we have on the whole project."
Experience Jazz is for students in grades seven through 12 who want to explore extracurricular music on Saturday afternoons, learning about composing, recording and playing in a band as well as the history of jazz and the business side of music.
After creating and releasing singles in its first two years, Experience Jazz 2020 met last winter at the High School for Recording Arts in St. Paul. Just as the 25 musicians were getting to know each other in person, the pandemic arrived. Program director Katia Cardenas wondered if they'd have to cancel or go remote.
"Can we run a program online? We all know as musicians that it's virtually impossible to play together in real time online from other locations," said Cardenas, a singer/actress and experienced arts administrator. "What's possible? We needed something to focus on, so we decided to make an album."
As with all students going virtual, Experience Jazz was a challenge.
For Eycis Maxon, 17, a lone singer among instrumentalists and rappers, there were conflicts with her fast-food job and all kinds of equipment issues. Her computer broke. Recording from her north Minneapolis home on a cellphone wasn't consistently working for her, whether the metronome was slightly off or navigating a particular app was difficult.
"Even then, they found a way to help me," Maxon said of the Experience Jazz staff. "We did a social distance studio time in the summer and recorded the rest of the stuff that I didn't get to do on the phone."
For students with computers, it was a multistep process rehearsing and recording via Zoom — with some hiccups.
"So much troubleshooting had to take place with kids not being well versed in recording," said instructor L.A. Buckner, a Minneapolis drummer and bandleader who had a No. 1 jazz album on iTunes in 2020. "Nothing beats playing music in the same world at the same time. But the attitude we had — choose to be optimistic. I'll be learning stuff from the kids, too. The youth are ahead of the curve."
In the end, "The Sounds of Distance" album was 90% students and then "the pros pulling it all together," said Herold, a musician and arts promoter.
With 13 tracks, the Experience Jazz 2020 recording features a handful of originals and noteworthy cover of War's "The World Is a Ghetto" plus remixes of four of the tracks.
As part of teaching about the history of music, Herold introduced the band War, a multicultural group from inner-city Los Angeles and their 1973 hit. Intern DJ Mickey Breeze remixed "The World Is a Ghetto" and then student rapper Pablo Giebink Valbuena, aka Pablo Manu, "built a narrative about what it's like to be a BIPOC person in America living in poverty and not able to get out of ghetto life," Herold explained.
'Safe space to learn'
An outgrowth of Minnesota Jazz Education, Experience Jazz was started in 2017, partnering with McNally Smith College of Music. However, in December that year, McNally Smith suddenly shut down, and Experience Jazz shifted to High School for Recording Arts.
Alto saxophonist Jerome Treadwell, 16, has spent three years in Experience Jazz.
"There's tons of underrated, introverted musicians in the Twin Cities," said Treadwell, who has gigged in clubs and promoted concerts. "Experience Jazz is a safe space for people to learn and grow."
He was proud of making an album at a time without gigs and jam sessions.
"What was touching to me was that all of my peers were able to express themselves at a time of frustration and at a time of chaos in the world and conversate musically and still manage to be productive and bond and collab with each other," said Treadwell, who is youth president of the St. Paul chapter of the NAACP.
Manzur, a seventh-grader at Keewaydin School in south Minneapolis, was skeptical about Experience Jazz even though his brother, trumpeter Gael, had participated for two years. But the guitarist was eventually won over. "They put me in a group where I could be my own self, and that helped me," he said. "It's a really good environment."
Alto saxophonist Sophia Kickhofel, 17, may have been the most accomplished musician in Experience Jazz 2020, thanks to her participation in National Youth Orchestra Jazz and the Dakota Combo. She appreciated the musical diversity of the Saturday sessions.
"There were so many different perspectives on music — from a singer to a rapper to a producer to an instrumentalist," said the Apple Valley High School senior. "In school, I feel like people are teaching music like it's math or a science, like it's academic. Experience Jazz never taught music like that, which is really awesome. It's like a life-changing program that I've been a part of."
Kickhofel is grateful that instructor Buckner invited her to Shiloh Temple in north Minneapolis before the pandemic.
"It taught me that music is a lot deeper than just the notes you play," she said. "It can come from a really spiritual background. It opened my eyes to playing with more emotion and with a deeper connection to the music."
Artwork and publicity
Treadwell is grateful for being on the "release team," where Experience Jazz students learned the business side — distribution, publicity and promotion. One student, Zach Studdiford, even created the artwork for the album cover.
"It's great that we can learn how to play the instrument and how to make money properly with the instrument," said Treadwell, a junior at Highland Park High School in St. Paul.
The voluble Treadwell also learned about rejection after pitching the project to media outlets hoping to generate airplay and coverage and often hearing "no" or no response.
"Rejection is just another synonym for motivation, for me at least," Treadwell said. "Sometimes experience is more valuable than a product."
On the other hand, he's excited that he's going to be interviewed about Experience Jazz by Downbeat magazine, the jazz bible.
Instructor/drummer Buckner thinks Experience Jazz helps to get young students out of their comfort zone, to shed their anxiety.
It certainly lit a fire under once-shy Manzur. That was evident when he explained the back story of "Muertos."
"My father was born in Mexico. Dia de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead — is a really big holiday there. I kind of wrote this song in remembrance of my grandpa who passed away," the guitarist said. "I wrote the lyrics sitting under a tree outside, and I was just playing a few chords and a little rhythm. They [Experience Jazz staff] turned it into something that was really nice, and they explained how they were doing it as they were doing it. It still felt like my song. I was pretty amazed, to be honest."
Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719
Experience Jazz 2021
When: Saturdays, March 20-June 12.
Where: Via Zoom.
Cost: $150, scholarships available "no questions asked." Register by March 5.
Website: mnjazzed.org/ experience-jazz